UQ Future Jobs Forum, excerpts from remarks

20 August 2015

…I’ll address infrastructure and sustainability – both long words. Infrastructure is what few people think about but everyone depends on. Sustainability is what everybody talks about but few want to embrace if it means a less affluent, less comfortable or less convenient lifestyle…

Trends

So, what about infrastructure? Do you know where from and through what pipe your last glass of water came? Where will it go after it leaves your body? Yuck – I know. Infrastructure is not even nice to talk about. Millions of seagulls love landfills, but not many people. However, just like a body with no skeleton is a puddle, a city without infrastructure is a paddock.

Are you picturing in your head: dams, sewers, roads, airports, power lines and mobile phone towers? So how will all this change over the length of your career? Three trends I pose for your consideration are: private sector involvement; decentralisation; and intelligence.

Despite limited popular interest in infrastructure, we did have an almighty kafuffle about public ownership of assets at the last election… Nevertheless, not only will the private sector be more involved, but business has a great deal to offer beyond its capital.

Business doesn’t tolerate inefficiency for long. The profit motive provides strategic clarity for organisations. Business ambition, competition and innovation go hand in hand – and we need innovation. If talk of profit makes you uneasy – it’s not an either-or situation. I am not suggesting that government abandon infrastructure or that it will not continue to have a vital role.

So, why would a profit-seeking corporation care about sustainability? I have witnessed very significant commitments to sustainability within private companies engaged in infrastructure development. I think this is because companies are not faceless, soulless entities. They are groups of people, and most people want to ‘do the right thing’. They care deeply about what their work efforts mean for the community. We often dress-up corporate sustainability with reference to the ‘business case’ – that is, a compelling business rationale to do something. Most of the time there is an available justification that will satisfy investors, but I personally believe that the underlying driver is more human than that.

Decentralisation is another trend. Today, every fifth house has a mini power station on its roof; every fourth, a rainwater tank. I can run a global business with a tablet and a mobile phone, and I can do it anywhere. It won’t be long before we’re charging our cars at home and storing power in home batteries that we’ve generated from solar panels.

Whether decentralisation is universally good for sustainability remains an open question. Energex’s distribution network is struggling with grid-connected PV. For my part, I don’t trust myself to maintain my rainwater tank to provide the family with safe drinking water (free of possum poo that is).

I said that intelligence was a trend. What I mean is built-in smarts. We see it everywhere – tolling, video surveillance, self-driving vehicles. Sometimes technology is ahead of its practical use – like Domino’s GPS-tracked pizza delivery. I’m not sure the variable speed limit signs on the Gateway are doing much for me, but the spread of built-in smarts is wide and we’re getting better at collecting and managing big data. When we can micro-manage demand and supply we can also optimise environmental and social effects.

Importance of sustainability

So how important is sustainability to the infrastructure sector – and how does the sector fit with a low carbon economy? Some people think sustainability is a fad and it will eventually go away or be replaced by a more current buzz word. Some say it’s a middle-class Western value of diminishing relevance as dominant global value systems shift.

None of this matters from the perspective of limits to growth. Part of sustainability thinking is that the world has natural, physical limits within which we need to live. So, even if sustainability seems to have been co-opted by the corporate sector and melded to something consistent with continual economic expansion, these physical limits are immune to spin or cultural overtones.

Infrastructure as we know it has a lot to do with concrete and steel. These are two hidden challenges for the low carbon economy. Concrete is made with Portland cement, which is energy intensive to produce, gives off carbon dioxide in its manufacture and is heavy to transport. New steel is made using coal, which is transformed to coke, providing a source of pure carbon to mix with iron in a blast furnace. Sixty percent of the coal exported from Queensland is destined for steel-making and unfortunately no amount of wind turbines is going to solve that problem. At the moment, alternative materials like geopolymer concretes have limited application. So, the current focus is on being judicious, efficient and recovering and recycling as much material as possible…

So, yes, sustainability and low carbon considerations are critically important to infrastructure. The Sydney Metro Northwest project is undergoing the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia’s rating process and the proponent, Transport for NSW, has mandated that all contractors achieve a high sustainability score. We are beginning to see in the infrastructure sector, the leaps in sustainability performance that have been achieved in the buildings sector. If you are not familiar with ISCA, I encourage you to visit the website and find out more…

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